Pope Francis issued a new edict Saturday effectively countermanding a previous order and reflecting his ongoing struggle with interests entrenched inside the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s sprawling bureaucracy.
The document is a motu proprio called “Like a loving mother,” which clarifies language and procedures governing the removal of bishops for negligence in clerical sexual abuse investigations. In it, Francis advises that impeding, ignoring, or bungling an investigation into so called “pedophile priests” by a bishop is sufficient reason to remove said bishop from office. A motu proprio is the functional equivalent of an executive order, issued by the pope to explicate certain aspects of canon law, guide clergy in their implementation of policy, or establish guidelines for liturgical practices.
In the document, the pontiff acknowledges that previous motu proprios, specifically Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 2001, already provide for the removal of a bishop from office for “grave reasons.” The pope clarified that negligence in the investigation or prosecution of pedophile priests constitutes a “grave reason” which warrants removal from office.
Little doubt existed that such actions by prelates were considered “graves reasons” necessitating disciplinary action by the Church. The Holy See Press Office says Pope Francis sought to emphasis the “special diligence” with which bishops must act “in the protection of the weakest among those entrusted to them.” (RELATED: Catholic Bishops: Obama Blew Off Pope Francis With Transgender Edict)
Victims groups were skeptical that the papal fiat amounted to meaningful change.
“Instead of just sacking bad bishops, or turning over abuse records to law enforcement, the Vatican is setting up yet another untested, internal church ‘process’ to purportedly deal with bishops who ignore or conceal child sex crimes,” a statement from David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, read.
“We’re extraordinarily skeptical,” he added.
Perhaps more significant is that the order effectively scraps a proposal approved by Pope Francis last year, which called for the creation of a tribunal within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to prosecute negligent bishops. The proposal was first made by a committee established by Pope Francis to advise the Holy See on clerical sexual abuse. The CDF is the oldest of the nine congregations, or departments, which make up the Roman Curia, and is widely considered the most powerful. The CDF already oversees investigations into priests accused of sex crimes, but bishops are investigated by different offices.
The proposal met vigorous opposition inside the Curia. As of this writing, no person has yet been appointed to the CDF tribunal. There is no indication that will change any time soon. The document issued today is an effective surrender to those in the Vatican who opposed the order, as it makes little reference to the proposed tribunal, and reminds the offices already charged with oversight of bishops of their responsibility to act quickly and decisively.
Pope Francis has made reforming the Vatican’s byzantine culture a central goal of his pontificate. Progress thus far has been slow, prompting some prominent observers to suggest his more traditional predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, has been the most successful reformer of recent decades.
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